How I Got Off the Hamster Wheel: Surplus Mindset Coaching

As I approach another high school season coaching Oratory Prep, I am finding myself extremely distracted at how to do better this year.

Often this kind of reflection focuses on new ideas. New ideas are great. Change is necessary. But I have found myself repeating a foolish mistake too many times: forgetting what worked in the first place.

In the case of Oratory, we have very limited time to swim. I remember the first time I had the practice schedule read to me. I let out a guffaw. A spoiled brat of a Danish system that valued endless time in the water and NCAA Division 1, now I would have to make swimmers fast with a few hours a week?

It turns out that limitation was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. It was by far the most fun I have ever had coaching, partially because the schedule made it impossible for me to actively stress about whether I was doing “enough” things to help the swimmers get better.

Instead, I had just a little time- what should I do with it? More and more, I viewed every little set , skill component or time spent together on the bus as additive. In my education, we would have called the difference between these two outlooks as deficit mindset versus surplus mindset.

Yes I used the word mindset, and no in this case I’m not talking about the lovely Carol Dweck.

Deficit Mindset

When I swam myself, a deficit mindset was definitely one of the tools I used to not reach my potential.

When I swam doubles, I worried that perhaps I wasn’t doing enough doubles. When I lifted weights I worried that I might need another set. When I lay in my bed at night, I worried that I needed to find a way to sleep nine hours instead of eight and a half so I could recover better. The worrying kept me up so I slept seven.

A deficit mindset is closely tied with pessimism, but has a specific focus on what you are “missing”. It’s the FOMO of hard work.

When I became a coach, I knew that I didn’t want to train swimmers to death to make them faster, but still it was hard to feel secure about what I was doing, especially when I compared it to the coaches I saw getting a lot of praise and the legends of what their workouts looked like.

Deficit mindsets are insidious because they are a hungry beast. You can never feed them enough accomplishment that your mind can’t invent new things you didn’t do or don’t have.

Surplus Mindset

When I think about surplus mindsets I imagine somebody laying bricks in a row, then building a row on top of that.

Every action they take is additive to what they’ve done before, and building toward something.

I find it particularly useful to return to this practice during periods of great change. When you change it can feel very personal and emotional, as if you are knocking down you everything you’ve already built and starting over.

When I go out and talk to teams, I often warn them against this rationalization. People tend to naturally see the conflict between something they already “knew” and some new information.

Likewise, training wise we can feel that we need to sustain a certain “amount” of training to impact our performance, but it turns out it is quite important to constantly refine what we are doing with the time given to us.

Once more

The coming season begins on November 5th. There is a new team (and new teams) to coach. My goal remains the same: have fun doing the thing that I love and continue to learn.